Peri, Trouper

Dallas’ Peri Gilpin never took comedy seriously until she auditioned for Frasier four years ago and landed the role she was born to play.

October 1996By Comments

JANE!” Peri Gilpin’s trademark foghorn voice drawls from her dressing room on the set of the NBC sitcom Frasier. “Come meet Ellise!”

Jane Leeves, who plays Daphne on the show, pops in and says hello. “This is Ellise,” says Peri, “my new friend from Dallas.”

Never mind that we have just met. We’ve already bonded in the time-honored way of Dallas women everywhere—by talking makeup and hair.

“I hate her,” Jane says of Peri. “She’s got boobs and I don’t.”

“Yeah, but Jane’s got a skinny ass,” Peri says. “Bitch,” she adds, laughing, as Jane slips back out.

She walks to a shelf lined with tiny bottles of Evian, grabs two, and hands me one.

“What’s that blender doing on your shelf, anyway?”

“That’s for those liquid meals,” she says. “Those metabolic drinks, you know?”

“I thought blenders were just for margaritas,” I say.

“They should be,” she says with her throaty laugh. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

The exchange has the feel of a scene from Frasier, which is probably no surprise to anyone who knows Peri Gilpin. At 35, after three years on the wildly successful sitcom, the good old Dallas girl has risen from near obscurity to certified TV stardom in large part by playing herself—her genuine, sassy, down-to-earth, funny self. And she is part of an extraordinary ensemble of actors who seem equally at home in their roles. Now starting its fourth season, Frasier is one of the highest-rated and most honored series of all time, having won nine Emmys, including three for best comedy. It stars Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane, the pompous psychiatrist from Cheers who has returned to his hometown of Seattle to work with people on the air instead of on the couch. Peri plays the street-smart, irreverent Roz Doyle, the terminally single radio producer whose main purpose, she says, is “to bug Frasier.” Rounding out the cast are Frasier’s pretentious brother, Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce; his crotchety, retired-cop father, Martin, played by John Mahoney; and the wacky, sometimes psychic caregiver, Daphne, played by Leeves.

Frasier has wowed both audiences and critics, who have called it one of the smartest shows on television. In December 1994 David Kronke of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “While Hollywood struggled to create one solid comedy film, Frasier, week in and week out, crafted episodes filled with clever characterizations and plotting.” The actors deliver deadpan lines to one another with a drollness that’s closer to British comedy than anything else on this side of the water. David Lee, the show’s executive producer, admits that he designed it to be an “anti-sitcom sitcom, with zippy laugh lines, a plot point, and then it’s on to the next one.”

“Most sitcoms you can see right through,” says Peri. But Frasier’s writers “don’t use the old adage that the average American has the attention span of an eight-year-old, or whatever,” she says. “They go, ‘We’re going to play to people that have our attention span.’ Sometimes the jokes lob over my head, but that’s wonderful. It’s like a puzzle.”

Peri comes by her talent naturally. She was born three days after her mother, Sandra, finished taking final exams her sophomore year at Baylor University, where she was studying drama. At the time, Sandra was married to Jim O’Brien, who was studying to be a Baptist minister. In 1965, after the birth of Patti, they divorced, and Sandra and her two girls were on their own.

Sandra took a job as a third-grade teacher in Spring Branch, near her parents’ home outside Houston. Three years later, while moonlighting as a model and an actress and pressed for time, she dashed into Foley’s on Christmas Eve to buy gifts for her girls and ran into an old friend from junior high school, Wes Gilpin. They were married three months later, and the two families merged—Mark and April, Wes’s children from a previous marriage, joining Peri and Patti. Wes took a textbook-sales job at Prentice Hall in Dallas, and Sandra returned to her first love, acting. She signed up with the Kim Dawson agency and began doing commercials. When Peri was six, the Gilpins bought their dream home, a two-story white house in Forest Hills near White Rock Lake, where they still live.

One spring afternoon in 1969, Sandra, Wes, and Peri were walking along Turtle Creek near the Dallas Theater Center. Peri, then eight, saw a children’s class performing outside. “I saw someone dressed up as a cigarette machine, and I said, ‘I can do that,’ and I joined the class right then,” says Peri. From that moment on, she was hooked. “Peri did everything she could to be around the theater,” remembers Sandra. She studied Greek and Roman theater at the Dallas Theater Center and created plays with the group in the spring of each year. One year Peri starred as Charlie Brown, the next as Susan B. Anthony. And she was always funny. “I still picture her with her head thrown back, just laughing,” says Sandra.

By this time, the rest of Peri’s siblings were acting too. But while Patti, Mark, and April would take time off every now and then, Peri was focused from the start. “Peri was the one taking the bus to theater school, ushering, and building renderings of sets with toothpicks,” remembers Patti. Peri attended Long Junior High School and Skyline High School and continued to take drama classes at the Dallas Children’s Theater until she was eighteen.

Upon graduation, she enrolled at the University of Texas as a drama major. But her time in Austin was abruptly cut short when she was kicked out of the drama department’s acting program at the end of her sophomore year, along with nearly two hundred other students. “They said that I wasn’t devoted enough,” Peri says, “and that I wasn’t the product they wanted to produce from the University of Texas drama department. I was more determined than ever after that.” Her mother says that getting kicked out of UT was providential. “It was the best thing that happened to her, but at the time, it was brutal. It made absolutely no sense.”

Undaunted, Peri packed her bags and flew to London, where she enrolled in acting classes. After a year there, she returned to Dallas and worked for a short time as a makeup artist. Eighteen months later, realizing that she longed to be onstage instead of backstage, she pulled out her suitcases again and headed for New York.

For the next five summers, Peri apprenticed at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, building sets, making costumes, and working with Blythe Danner, Olympia Dukakis, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Walken. The rest of the year, she created her own curriculum—she took classes in voice, singing, movement, and scene study—and made money by working as a freelance stage manager. During her last summer at Williamstown, she was cast as the lead in Hawthorne Country with Richard Thomas, her first major starring role. In 1988, having joined Actors Equity, Peri moved to Hollywood.

In Los Angeles she kept busy with ensemble theater work and helped produce a comedy by Richard Greenberg called The Maderati, which she also starred in. Word soon got out that she was a gifted comedic actress, and she began to land television roles—guest appearances on Wings, Cheers, Designing Women, and the short-lived Flesh ’n’ Blood, as well as on the police drama 21 Jump Street. “I never thought I’d do comedy, ever, in a million years,” Peri says. “I always thought comedy was just for fun—to me the real stuff was the real dramatic stuff. Now I know it’s all valuable. There’s a real excitement, a good feeling when you can make people laugh.”

When David Lee approached NBC with an idea to do a spin-off from his hit series Cheers, the show literally was cast at the network meeting, except for the part of Roz Doyle. “We auditioned every single type and size and flavor of woman in Hollywood for that role because we didn’t know what we wanted,” Lee says. Peri auditioned, and so did Lisa Kudrow, now on Friends. “Lisa brought a quirkiness to the part,” he says, “but what we needed was somebody on the other side of the glass who could stand head to toe with Kelsey.”

Peri was having dinner with her agent at the trendy L.A. restaurant Orso when she learned she had won the part. “The waiter came to the table and said, ‘Peri Gilpin? You have a call,’” she tells me.

“Peri, that sounds so Hollywood,” I say.

“So I take the call and it’s Jeff Greenberg [the show’s casting director],” she says, “and he tells me that they want me to be on the set at ten the next morning.”

“What did you do?” I ask. “Did you scream?”

“Yes! And we walked the check! We were so excited that we forgot to pay and they ran after us on the way to the car!” She pauses. “You’ve got to go to Orso. It’s great for people watching, you know, spotting celebrities. Last time I was there, I saw at least ten.”

The day after she got the call, Peri showed up on the set with an armload of file folders, research she’d already done for the part of Roz. When she walked into the radio booth, the character came to life. “Peri came in and the moment she opened her mouth, we said, well, there’s a radio voice right there,” says Jane Leeves.

Peri brought the strength to the character that David Lee was looking for, and he decided to let the character grow out of the actress. Peri immediately began figuring out what Roz would become. “So Frasier and I are in there together in that radio booth, and he’s strong and she’s gotta be strong, so what does that turn into?” she says. “Where is she strong? I thought, ‘She’s good at what she does. And Frasier is the one who’s not technically on solid ground, so I’ve got to be over there running the show.’ And also, I just wanted to be like that, because I’m, like, so nontechnical—I worry about the stove and the oven and did I turn the car off or is it running out there?” The line between Peri and Roz can get fuzzy. Roz, of course, is known to be a bit loose. “Oh, Peri doesn’t sleep around nearly as much as Roz,” says Lee. But “there’s a definite wild side to Peri,” says Leeves. “She sums up the word ‘gal.’”

While the cast of Frasier trades barbs with one another on the show, between scenes they hang out in the greenroom together, and off the set they’re close too. “We’re all theater rats,” Peri says. “We sit and talk theater all day long.” Leeves agrees. “There’s an extraordinary chemistry that couldn’t have been predicted,” she says. Although the two characters, Roz and Daphne, rarely interact on the set, off-camera, says Leeves, they’re like Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy and Edina, taking a limo to Neiman’s to shop or just hanging around Peri’s backyard Jacuzzi with a glass of wine.

Peri goes back to Dallas every fourth week during the nine-month taping season to visit family and friends—but she’s less likely to be found lunching at glitzy Star Canyon than at La Madeleine with her mom or having a beer at Louie’s. “I miss the summer nights in Dallas,” she says, walking to her Jeep Cherokee in the Paramount parking lot after a day’s rehearsal, “White Rock Lake in the evening, having a cold beer and watching the sun go down.”

Some of Peri’s closest friends are the girls she has known all her life, whom she speaks to often and who, she says, keep her grounded. Her best friend, though, is her mother, who is also her biggest fan. This past summer, while Peri was in Austin filming a made-for-television movie, Cradle Song, she spent a month at home with Sandra, who has been fighting cancer for twelve years. Sandra says that when Peri is back in Los Angeles, the two sometimes talk twice a day on the phone. “It’s not just chitchat, though,” she says, laughing. “I have to find out what the script is like, and Wes has to talk to her about the tiles on her roof and how the wrought iron worked on the gate.”

After taping for the season is over, Peri and I meet for lunch in Dallas at 8.0, which, I find out, she has picked because Patti’s ex-husband, Shannon Wynne, owns the joint. Over salads, iced tea, and cigarettes, we discuss recent breakups with boyfriends, both of us.

“The whole Hollywood nightlife thing cracks me up,” Peri says. “I can’t work and do that stuff.”

“Peri, I went to Orso,” I tell her. “You know who was sitting next to me?”

“I told you. Who?”

“Richard Gere.”

“That’s a good one. Yeah, that’s a really good one.”

“Peri, you don’t think of yourself as a star, do you?”

“No, sometimes I forget. Performing has been part of my life since I was eight years old, so that’s what I think I do. I don’t think about the fact that it happens to be in a bigger venue where people get to know you, or they think they do.”

“Do you sometimes say, ‘How did I get here? How on earth did this happen?’”

“Every day.”

Three glasses of iced tea and half a pack of Marlboro Lights later, Peri offers to drive me to my car. She gives me a hug and wishes me luck with my dating dilemma, then pulls down the black sunglasses that have been holding her thick, auburn hair off her face for the past few hours and drives off, waving.

Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer living in Dallas.

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